How fishing was gutted by Brexit

Meme by Anthea Bareham

Having recently ‘celebrated’ the anniversary of Brexit, it seemed like a good time to look at how various British industries and sectors of society have fared four years on from leaving the European Union (EU). This will be done over a series of articles, the first focusing on the Brexit poster child – The Fishing industry.

With Nigel Farage being on the EU fisheries commission while an MEP, he and others liked to put the fishing industry front and centre in the Brexit debate in 2016. Despite having attended just one out the 42 commission meetings, and therefore done very little to actually support the UK Fishing industry pre-Brexit, he claimed that being in the EU had ‘gutted’ the UK fishing industry and Brexit would solve all their woes.

Nigel Farage launched a poster campaign in Grimsby in 2015 and, notwithstanding the fishing industry accounting for a mere 0.03 per cent of the British economy (around half the size of the UK biscuit industry!), it became totemic in the Leave campaign.

Half of England’s fishing quotas had been sold to foreign interests, and two thirds were in the hands of just 25 extremely wealthy owners. Even so, the idea was pushed that Brexit would benefit the small fishing villages, with their families of cheery, bearded Captain Bird’s Eye characters.

And despite Britain being a net importer of fish (importing nearly twice as much as we exported), British waters not containing the sort of fish British people like to eat, and nearly 40 per cent of all British fishing happening in foreign waters, Brexiters clamoured for us to ‘take back control’ of British waters for British fisherman.

So how has Brexit affected the British fishing industry?

Image by Henning Sørby from Pixabay

Broken Promises

A report published by the University of York in 2022 found that despite promises of radical reforms to help the industry ‘take back control’ of British waters and increased quota shares, the reality was far from that.

The Brexit deal that was signed gave EU vessels continued access to British waters, and increased new regulations and logistical hurdles, making exporting slower and more expensive. Fish is a product where freshness is key and many UK fisherman lost customers as a result.

The report found that small boat fishermen have seen few, if any benefits. Instead, there have been increased costs and challenges. Lead author of the York study, Dr Stewart, said:

“Many people in coastal communities who were pinning their hopes on post-Brexit reforms feel betrayed and this comes at a significant cost to their wellbeing and mental health.”

Former Brexit party MEP, June Mummery, despite campaigning for Brexit, has been very vocal about the damage done. She said in 2023:

“What fishing industry? We’ve completely lost it. The industry is practically gone and is on its last legs.”

For an industry where nine out of 10 people voted to Leave the EU, this has been a bitter pill to swallow.

Decreased exports

The increased red tape, increased costs, and labour shortages in the processing section of the industry saw seafood exports fall from 452 thousand tonnes in 2019 to 330 thousand tonnes in 2022 according to government figures.

Loss of quotas

Despite all the promises, British fishermen did not receive any immediate increase in the quantity of fish they were able to net in British waters. Instead, EU vessels would have their quota reduced by 25 per cent over five and a half years.

In foreign waters British fishermen gained increased quotas in species they didn’t want and very little increases in the fish they did.

Depending on the type of fish caught by each vessel, some vessels not only saw their quotas halve, but have also been forced to travel further north to catch those fish, increasing their time at sea with increased costs as a consequence. A new deal with Norway in 2023 is thought to have gone some way to alleviate these issues but not nearly far enough for many of the fishermen and women involved in the industry.

Lyme Bay Photo by Clive Bareham

Red Tape

The increased regulations the British fishing industry have faced since Brexit have been hugely damaging.

Shellfish exporters have been hit particularly hard as they are generally exporting ‘live’ produce which then gets processed in the EU. One shellfish fisherman explained that pre-Brexit, he would receive an order, go fishing, hand over the load to a truck driver and 16 hours later it would arrive in the Netherlands.

Post-Brexit, fulfilling an order now involves finding a vet to approve the catch and who must fill out forms in both English and French. More expensive pallets and bags are needed; the truck driver needs to get another form from Dover, then an agent in France is required to deal with the load passing through France, and only then can it progress to the Netherlands. It is far less predictable and takes anything from 18 hours to 26 hours.

Another mussel fisherman had 20 tonnes of mussels returned from France as the vet had put the wrong date on the forms, so 20 tonnes were wasted, having been sitting around for 24 hours.

“Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving – or, rather, taking away” said the Chief Executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain.

Brexit has added huge amounts of red tape, increased costs, led to a lack of workers for processors, and for some sectors, all but wiped them out.

Unclean waters

It also turns out British waters are not clean enough for the EU to accept our shellfish, without purification or depuration, and we lack much depuration infrastructure.

The Menai Strait off the coast of Wales was rated as grade B in 2022. This meant the EU wouldn’t accept shellfish caught there. In 2023, one of the monitoring sites was deemed to be Grade A, giving a lifeline to local fisherman. However, living with the fear that inspectors could downgrade it again at any point is still a huge worry.

With the EU traditionally accounting for 80 per cent of our shellfish exports, Brexit has decimated that industry. In 2009, the Welsh Mussel industry exported 14,000 metric tons; in 2022 they managed just five!


 While in the EU, with Freedom of Movement, labour was relatively easy to come by. This sort of labour tended to be used in the processing of the fish, but when we left the EU and immigration controls were tightened, these jobs were left unfilled. Industry figures claim 15,000 tons of fish remained in the sea in 2022 because of a lack of staff available to fillet them.


Of course, as with many things Brexit related, there are some winners, inevitably in the shape of the big businesses in the sector. These are the multimillion-pound businesses who can absorb the extra costs and have the biggest commercial trawlers. The fishing towns and the local fisherman are left in their wake (pun intended!).

In conclusion

A 2022 report produced by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fisheries found:

A diverse mix of responses on the impacts of Brexit, although all were characterised by significant concern around financial losses and the long-term viability of individual businesses, fishing fleets, and other sectors of the UK fisheries sector including processors and transporters. Adding to this is a sense of unfairness and frustration at the impacts of Brexit, which for some respondents appears to have been heightened by the expectations they held prior to the publication of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. One fisherman, when asked if any of the impacts he had experienced had been unexpected, answered “all of them, because we were told we would be getting the independence of our sovereign waters back and that has not happened”.’

A report into the impact of Brexit on the fishing industry suggested Brexit will cause the industry to have lost over £300 million by 2026.

Fishing was the industry that encapsulated the essence of Brexit: it is an industry that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. And it is one that in, Farage’s words, has been ‘gutted’ by Brexit.